West has made a departure from the genre with newest film, the John Travolta- and Ethan Hawke-starring Western In a Valley of Violence, but nonetheless remains one of the sharpest players in the independent horror game. In the following introduction he wrote for our special, the director cuts straight to the core questions that every genre-maker (or -lover) must ask themselves: What makes horror truly great? And how can contemporary moviemakers honor that cinematic legacy? – MM Editors
When I was younger, “horror” was practically a dirty word. Horror films were trash; even the very best of them were considered only one or two notches above pornography. The audiences who watched them were assumed deviants—potentially even deranged. The people who made them were at best peddlers of filth, at worst prosecuted as criminals. Parents wanted their children protected from possible exposure, and censors and ratings boards aggressively blocked much of the genre from the masses. In the U.K., many films were even banned (just Google “video nasty” if you don’t believe me).
Yet so many people cherish these types of films. There is a tremendous love and appreciation for the genre, which is vigorously supported and defended by perhaps the staunchest of film fans.
Why is that? Why is something that a certain section of society deems utterly repugnant embraced with such passion by another? Why are some people so attracted to something others deem worthless and offensive? Because it’s interesting? Exciting? Dangerous? Because it could possibly be transformative?
The very best films are always about questions more than answers, and this is something we should think about not just in the context of genre film. These questions and the emotions they conjure up illustrate the true power of cinema. And the horror genre—more so than any other—confronts them head on. That’s why, as a dedicated cinephile, I admire it so passionately. It is the most progressive genre that exists.
Unfortunately the current state of American genre film often seems hell-bent on avoiding any kind of challenging subjectivity. Those deranged cretins who used to provide controversial thrills to us curious weirdoes trapped in the suburbs have now been replaced with corporations looking to develop unthreatening “horror” franchises aimed at the lowest common denominator. Is that really where we want our most subversive genre content coming from? Can we expect that system to produce anything truly great when it’s aiming to please the broadest spectrum of audiences?
I, for one, miss the thrilling adventure of peeking through my fingers at the most shocking cinema on the shelf. I miss the nervous energy of watching something potentially damaging. How will it affect me? What if it’s too much? Will I be OK? This was a profound, visceral way of experiencing movies. Going into a darkened theater and being presented with something you don’t have a context for how to enjoy—something you’ve never seen before—allows for an individual experience that can be transformational. That is the utmost magic of cinema. So my burning question for you readers, the one that keeps me up at night, is this:
Is there still reverence for cinema amongst modern audiences?
Not even specifically just for the horror genre, but for cinema in general. Obviously people still watch movies—the box-office numbers attest to that. But why do they watch them? For what reason? How much has that reason changed over the years? I suppose going to the movies has always been about escapism to some extent, but now it seems, at least to me, anyway, almost exclusively to that end. Is that what we want? Is it all we are capable of? I implore you to consider these questions as you flip through this issue. Challenge yourself to define what it is that connects you to cinema—and to “horror.” What is it that can turn an ordinary horror film into a legendary one?
As cinephiles we must stay engaged. We must not be passive filmgoers. I am confident that the talent is still out there, and that the best horror films are yet to come.
From where? The answers may lie within these pages… MM
This article appears in MovieMaker‘s 2017 Guide to Making Horror Movies special in the Fall 2016 issue (currently on newsstands). An expanded 2017 Guide to Making Horror Movies will be released as an eBook, available on Amazon starting October 21, 2016.
In a Valley of Violence opens in theaters October 21, 2016, courtesy of Focus World.